Category: politics

Pondering at the Food Coop

November 1, 2008

So, here I am having coffee and my favorite lunch, a toasted bagel with peanut butter thinking about the approaching election. Finally this will conclude what has been an overly long campaign, but one with enormous pleasures. Assuming that Obama is not just a curiosity to all those throngs at his campaign events, we will have a President who seems bright, competent, and level-headed with an adequate level if toughness. I don’t expect the kinds of policy directions I would like to see. But, after the last eight years, really the last eleven years, just having a competent President not mired in malevolent Millennial daydreams will be a step forward.

Though I am concerned that the present problems facing us may be beyond the present political system to navigate let alone solve.

Just to mention one. Our overseas empire with almost 800 military bases (see the Base Structure Report from the Pentagon for the data) on every continent proves Eisenhower’s point about the military industrial complex, though in truth this confirms what he is said to have wanted to say, “the military-industrial-Congressional complex”. This monster that consumes almost a trillion $s every year (my calculation includes the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, Energy, and other secret intelligence/military enterprises along with the budgets for the War on Drugs and Homeland Security) continues to grow with no evidence that our security is actually improving. To the contrary, it appears that in some quarters our security may be significantly diminished.

North Korea – a visit to the "Axis of Evil"

Bruce Cumings -North KoreaRecently, in the context of some discussion of the Bush regime, my step-son Jonathan pointed me towards several books on Korea. He said that Bruce Cumings is simply the best author writing in English on Korea. So, a quick trip to the local library and I had this compact little book in my hands.

The book is organized around five topics: (1) the impact of the Korean War on North Korea, (2) the genesis of Korea’s nuclear programs, (3) the legend of Kim Il Sung, (4) daily life in North Korea, and (5) the current leader (dictator) Kim Jong Il. The text is not what one might expect of an academic from the University of Chicago. Cumings writes in an openly polemic style that is directed to providing maximum exposure to North Korea and our miserable knowledge of this country.

This book is relatively brief and a compelling introduction to North Korea and a portion of our foreign policy history that was substantially new to this reader

The Healthcare Crisis

The healthcare crisis in the US is growing in severity and yet is not the subject of any real public debate. More than 44 million Americans are without health insurance and almost 65 million will experience a lack of coverage during the year. Emergency rooms are the primary care provider of necessity. All of this despite the fact that, as a nation, we spend more than any other country in the world; 11% more than the next closest country; 90% to 100% more than countries like Germany, Japan, Canada, Australia, and France. Yet the outcomes for our healthcare system are completely second tier and nearly third world.

You may be shocked to see exactly how poorly our phenomenally expensive health system is performing. Just to add some further context, note that Sweden (1st in Infant Mortality to the US 41st position) has a per capita income roughly equal to that of Mississippi (the poorest US state) and spends almost exactly half of what the US does per capita on health care. Examine the Comparative Health System Data (below) in which I have color-coded a few countries for quick comparison.

During our quadrennial presidential personality sweepstakes, neither candidate offered real solutions, really not even a discussion of the issues. We are stuck in a political environment in which neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are offering, and I would argue, are capable of offering real solutions.

Lets make a one basic observation about the situation:

This is not a money problem. As demonstrated by the data on the Comparative Health System Data chart, we clearly are spending enough money in aggregate.

But, this crisis is about money, namely, who gets it and what do they do with it. And, starting from the last serious attempt to tackle the problem during the first year of the Clinton administration, it is very clear that the political system is completely in the pockets of the various interests who have the money now, namely insurance and drug companies, hospitals, and doctors.

It seems obvious to me that we just need to look at any of a number of the top performing countries for the solution. Then, we need to have the political forces in place to tell some of the current participants that the rules have changed.

Central to any solution will be the participation of all US residents in the system. Healthcare is a basic human right and we should not be treated as “risk” factors in insurance company profit calculations. If everyone is part of the healthcare system, then we can effectively share the individual risks and expenses of healthcare across the whole population. Healthcare should not be an actuarial game to derive profit. It should be a system that delivers a reasonable level of service to everyone in the society.

Two players clearly are at the top of the hit list. First, most assuredly the insurance industry, which adds no value to our health care, but consumes by many estimates 15% to 20% of the resources, must go. Second, the drug companies can be brought into reasonable competition for prices that will bring market forces to bear.

Ironically, given the long history of doctors opposing national or single-payer systems in the US, doctors have now been reduced to the status of wage slaves like the rest of us. Many, if not a solid majority of doctors, will support real reforms to the system.

I close here with two basic notions:

  • our healthcare problems are not about a lack of money, and
  • we need to develop political forces that can overcome the control of government (Federal and state) health policies by the current players in the healthcare system.

Given the current Bush administration, I believe the focus of reform must be at the state level. It seems feasible to envision a single-payer system that covers all residents in a state like Massachusetts. We should try it.

Solving the Health Care Crisis in the US – some data

Comparative Health System Data

Health Spending per
Capita 2002

Infant Mortality per 1000 Births 2003

Life Expectancy in Years at Birth 2003

1

United States

$4,271

1

Sweden

3.44

1

Andorra

83.49

2

Switzerland

$3,857

2

Iceland

3.53

2

Macau

81.87

3

Norway

$3,182

3

Singapore

3.6

3

San Marino

81.43

4

Denmark

$2,785

4

Finland

3.76

4

Japan

80.93

5

Luxembourg

$2,731

5

Japan

3.84

5

Singapore

80.42

6

Iceland

$2,701

6

Norway

3.9

6

Australia

80.13

7

Germany

$2,697

7

Andorra

4.07

7

Guernsey

80.04

8

France

$2,288

8

Netherlands

4.31

8

Switzerland

79.99

9

Japan

$2,243

9

Austria

4.39

9

Sweden

79.97

10

Netherlands

$2,173

10

France

4.41

10

Hong Kong

79.93

11

Sweden

$2,145

11

Switzerland

4.42

11

Canada

79.83

12

Belgium

$2,137

12

Macau

4.44

12

Iceland

79.8

13

Austria

$2,121

13

Slovenia

4.47

13

Cayman Islands

79.67

14

Canada

$1,939

14

Belgium

4.64

14

Italy

79.4

15

Australia

$1,714

15

Germany

4.65

15

Gibraltar

79.38

16

Finland

$1,704

16

Luxembourg

4.71

16

France

79.28

17

Italy

$1,676

17

Spain

4.85

17

Monaco

79.27

18

United Kingdom

$1,675

18

Australia

4.9

18

Liechtenstein

79.25

19

Israel

$1,607

19

Liechtenstein

4.92

19

Spain

79.23

20

Ireland

$1,569

20

Guernsey

4.92

20

Norway

79.09

21

United Arab Emirates

$1,428

21

Canada

4.95

21

Israel

79.02

22

New Zealand

$1,163

22

Denmark

4.97

22

Jersey

78.93

23

Spain

$1,043

23

Gibraltar

5.4

23

Faroe Islands

78.9

24

Greece

$965

24

Ireland

5.43

24

Greece

78.89

25

Portugal

$859

25

United Kingdom

5.45

25

Aruba

78.83

26

Slovenia

$746

26

Czech Republic

5.46

26

Netherlands

78.74

27

Singapore

$678

27

Jersey

5.52

27

Martinique

78.72

28

Argentina

$654

28

Northern Mariana Islands

5.61

28

Virgin Islands

78.59

29

Uruguay

$621

29

Malta

5.72

29

Malta

78.43

30

Bahamas, The

$612

30

Monaco

5.73

30

Germany

78.42

31

Barbados

$601

31

Hong Kong

5.73

31

Montserrat

78.36

32

Korea, South

$470

32

Italy

5.76

32

New Zealand

78.32

33

Lebanon

$469

33

Portugal

5.84

33

Belgium

78.29

34

Saint Kitts and Nevis

$408

34

San Marino

6.09

34

Guam

78.27

35

Czech Republic

$380

35

New Zealand

6.18

35

Austria

78.17

36

Bahrain

$358

36

Greece

6.25

36

United Kingdom

78.16

37

Hungary

$318

37

Aruba

6.26

37

Saint Pierre and Miquelon

78.11

38

Brazil

$308

38

Man, Isle of

6.3

38

Man, Isle of

77.98

39

Chile

$289

39

Guam

6.58

39

Finland

77.92

40

Slovakia

$285

40

Faroe Islands

6.66

40

Jordan

77.88

41

Costa Rica

$257

41

United States

6.69

41

Luxembourg

77.66

42

Poland

$248

42

Taiwan

6.8

42

Guadeloupe

77.53

43

Panama

$246

43

Croatia

7.06

43

Bermuda

77.41

44

Estonia

$243

44

Cuba

7.27

44

Saint Helena

77.38

45

Mexico

$236

45

Israel

7.55

45

Ireland

77.35

46

South Africa

$230

46

Korea, South

7.58

46

Cyprus

77.27

47

Colombia

$227

47

Martinique

7.62

47

Puerto Rico

77.26

48

Dominica

$208

48

Cyprus

7.71

48

United States

77.14

49

Trinidad and Tobago

$204

49

Montserrat

7.98

49

Denmark

77.1

50

Grenada

$193

50

Saint Pierre and Miquelon

8.18

50

Taiwan

76.87

51.

Lithuania

$183

51

New Caledonia

8.23

51

Cuba

76.8

52

Antigua and Barbuda

$179

52

Reunion

8.31

52

Anguilla

76.7

53

Venezuela

$171

53

Slovakia

8.76

53

French Guiana

76.69

54

Latvia

$166

54

Hungary

8.77

54

Kuwait

76.65

55

Jamaica

$157

55

French Polynesia

8.95

55

Costa Rica

76.43

56

Turkey

$153

56

Chile

9.12

56

Portugal

76.35

57

Saint Lucia

$151

57

Poland

9.17

57

Chile

76.35

58

Maldives

$150

58

Virgin Islands

9.21

58

Northern Mariana Islands

76.16

59

El Salvador

$143

59

Bermuda

9.28

59

Libya

76.07

60

Namibia

$142

60

Puerto Rico

9.3

60

British Virgin Islands

76.06

61

Peru

$141

61

Guadeloupe

9.3

61

Uruguay

75.87

62

Jordan

$139

62

Cayman Islands

9.89

62

Jamaica

75.85

63

Iran

$128

63

American Samoa

10.09

63

American Samoa

75.75

64

Botswana

$127

64

Nauru

10.52

64

Slovenia

75.51

65

Gabon

$122

65

Costa Rica

10.87

65

Argentina

75.48

66

Mauritius

$120

66

Kuwait

10.87

66

French Polynesia

75.45

67

Syria

$116

67

Netherlands Antilles

11.06

67

Netherlands Antilles

75.38

68

Thailand

$112

68

Barbados

11.71

68

Korea, South

75.36

69

Tunisia

$108

69

Estonia

12.32

69

Czech Republic

75.18

70

Burma

$97

70

Macedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of

12.54

70

United Arab Emirates

74.75

71

Dominican Republic

$95

71

French Guiana

13.22

71

Macedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of

74.49

72

Paraguay

$86

72

Jamaica

13.71

72

Slovakia

74.43

73

Fiji

$86

73

Tonga

13.72

73

Tunisia

74.4

74

Romania

$86

74

Fiji

13.72

74

Paraguay

74.4

75

Belarus

$85

75

Brunei

13.95

75

Croatia

74.37

76

Belize

$82

76

Belarus

14.12

76

Brunei

74.3

77

Malaysia

$81

77

Bulgaria

14.18

77

Dominica

74.12

78

Guatemala

$78

78

Uruguay

14.25

78

Turks and Caicos Islands

74

79

Honduras

$74

79

Lithuania

14.34

79

Serbia and Montenegro

73.97

80

Bolivia

$69

80

Grenada

14.63

80

Poland

73.91

81

Kazakhstan

$62

81

Saint Lucia

14.8

81

Venezuela

73.81

82

Bulgaria

$62

82

Latvia

14.96

82

Bahrain

73.72

83

Ecuador

$59

83

Sri Lanka

15.65

83

New Caledonia

73.52

84

Nicaragua

$54

84

Saint Kitts and Nevis

15.83

84

Reunion

73.43

85

Guyana

$51

85

Dominica

15.94

85

Qatar

73.14

86

Swaziland

$46

86

United Arab Emirates

16.12

86

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

73.08

87

China

$40

87

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

16.15

87

Saint Lucia

73.08

88

Congo, Democratic Republic of the

$40

88

Palau

16.21

88

West Bank

72.68

89

Cape Verde

$37

89

Mauritius

16.65

89

Sri Lanka

72.62

90

Philippines

$37

90

Seychelles

16.86

90

Oman

72.58

91

Zimbabwe

$36

91

Bahamas, The

17.08

91

Albania

72.37

92

Albania

$36

92

Argentina

17.2

92

Panama

72.32

93

Bhutan

$36

93

Greenland

17.28

93

Mexico

72.3

94

Kenya

$31

94

Serbia and Montenegro

17.36

94

Bosnia and Herzegovina

72.29

95

Nigeria

$30

95

Turks and Caicos Islands

17.46

95

China

72.22

96

Turkmenistan

$30

96

Romania

18.88

96

Hungary

72.17

97

Sri Lanka

$29

97

Bahrain

19.18

97

Solomon Islands

72.1

98

Ukraine

$28

98

British Virgin Islands

19.55

98

Lebanon

72.07

99

Cote d’Ivoire

$28

99

Panama

19.57

99

Ecuador

71.89

100

Papua New Guinea

$25

100

Jordan

19.61

100

Barbados

71.84

Data for Spending: World Bank. 2002. World Development Indicators 2002. CD-ROM. Washington, DC

Data for Infant Mortality: CIA World Factbook, December 2003

Data for Life Expectancy: CIA World Factbook, December 2003

All data courtesy of http://www.nationmaster.com/index.php (09/29/04)

A Fog of War or a Fog of Ethics?

Through our friend Esther Hanig we attended a showing of Errol Morris’s new documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara. at the Kennedy Library in Dorchester on December 14, 2003. This documentary is an extended adventure into the historico-biography of Robert S. McNamara, most famous as the Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The movie intersperses close up head shots of McNamara (always shown off center) responding to questions posed by the interviewer (never seen, but clearly the director Morris) with historical footage and graphics illustrating events or concepts.



McNamara today at age 87 McNamara as Sec. of Defense ca 1966.
Photos appropriated from the New York Times web site


One of the most effective sections reveals McNamara’s role in the planning and execution of bombing campaigns during WWII under the command of Gen. Curtis LeMay. This bombing campaign attacked 67 Japanese cities. Morris uses historical footage of the results and then flashes the names of the Japanese cities with their populations on the screen immediately followed by the names and populations of similar-size American cities. In one night a fire-bombing of Tokyo incinerated 100,000 civilians. In the movie, Mr. McNamara tells Mr. Morris. “Lemay said, `If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He — and I’d say I — were behaving as war criminals.” He asks, “What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” (thanks for this quote to the movie review article “War and Never Having to Say You’re Sorry” by Samantha Power, Published: December 14, 2003 in the New York Times)

Later, covering the Vietnam War, Morris provides audio tapes of both Kennedy and Johnson speaking with McNamara about the war. These add more fuel to the argument that if Kennedy had lived that he would not have enlarged the US involvement. And, on the other hand, Johnson comes across as clearly responsible. No surprise there.

When asked during the post-screening discussion about why he waited for over twenty years to reveal that he had come to think the Vietnam war a mistake even while still Sec. of Defense, McNamara repeated his claim that as a former Sec of Defense he could not say critical things of the war policy because it would have been giving comfort to the enemy and endangering US troops.

This is a cruel bit of logic.

When McNamara left his position roughly 25,000 Americans had died and probably 10 to 20 times that many Vietnamese. By the time the war actually ended seven years later, more than twice that many had died on both sides. It remains a galling outrage that this man, so intimately involved with the development and prosecution of the Vietnam War, could be seeking absolution twenty years later. It is the minimum we human beings owe to each other that, when confronted with obvious wrong doing, we speak up. This obligation is all the more important for those in positions of power and authority. But, one of Morris’s points in his movie is that evil and evil doers are never quite so easily categorized as might be in an old Western movie.

The end of the post-screening discussions with McNamara displayed this point with fresh vigor. After the program was officially closed, McNamara called for a few more moments of the audience’s attention. He wanted to add to his call for work on developing and deploying a real policy on proliferation of nuclear weapons with a call for international standards for behavior by political leaders enforced by international judicial tribunals. Perhaps we might think of him in the dock for his role in the Vietnam War. Just as a small starting point for the prosecution: during the movie McNamara himself pointed out that more munitions were dropped on Vietnam during the war than all that were used in the European theatre of WWII. And, this, in a country that is just about the same land area as our states of Wisconsin and Minnesota and then, as now, one of the poorest countries in the world.

But, then, McNamara seems incapable of connecting the ethical dots in his own life. How can acknowledge that his role in the fire-bombings of Japan might be considered a “war crime”, his policy in Vietnam wrong, and call for international standards of behavior enforced by international courts??

PS: I highly recommend the movie. It is challenging and very well made.

12172003

Enron, Trust and Malfeasance

January 23, 2002 (revised 1/29/02)

The collapse of energy giant Enron over the last six months has produced a surprising level of outrage especially for a cynic like me.

As this drama continues to unfold, I have been trying to understand how Enron structured their business and made money. Until just last night I was operating on the belief that the cleverness and sophistication of Enron’s managers simply outstripped my analytical skills. But, as I have been following the writing in the NY Times and Wall St. Journal, slowly it has come to me that they don’t understand the maze of structures and deals employed by Enron for years either.

Then, last night, on the Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS, Paul Solman, one of the regular financial reporters, gave his analysis of what has been going on. After listening to Solman’s report, it is clear that Enron has been engaging in massive deceit, deception, and downright criminal activity for years.

Now, I must admit to some familiarity with the habits and attitudes of managers. I am used to the aggressive behavior of managers trying to stretch the accounting systems to make the most recent quarter look good. In fact, I have participated in such activities. But, Enron has engaged in a long-term shell game aided and abetted by its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, LLC. The failure of the government (the SEC) and more importantly, the audit companies, to provide oversight, transparency, basic facts, and above all the application simple commonsense ethics to a huge company’s activities is outrageous. It undermines the credibility of the economy. If Arthur Andersen, one of the oldest and most prestigious audit firms can be so blind over so many years, what are we to make of their, and other audit firms’ reliability for oversight of all the other firms so many of us hold in our 401K funds?

It will be interesting to see how the government and the financial institutions of capitalism react to this. It is a basic tenant of the capital and equity markets that timely, transparent information is essential not only to the best and highest use of our capital resources, but also to the maintenance of trust in a reasonably fair play space.

You can see the Solman report on the PBS web site (opens in a separate window)

And, from Friday January 25, 2002, here is more Solman on Enron (opens in a separate window)

Whose Opinion (Advice) Is This?

Whose Opinion (Advice) Is This?

The Problem

At a time when we are quite aware of the need for and value of transparency in the reporting of the activities of corporations (thanks most recently to the Enron affair), we could quite usefully extend this transparency metaphor to other parts of day-to-day life. The print press, TV, radio, and internet are filled with opinions and advice from all sorts of people. Many of these pass for expert status just based on affiliation with universities, institutes, and think tanks.

Increasingly we must ask ourselves, “whose opinion is this?” Who is being served by the expertise?

Although many in the academic and chic cultural world (not to mention the various right-wing types in political and religious quarters) may think that relativism is the creation of post-WWII French philosophy, most of the rest of the world knows full well that “truth” is in fact relative, that is, relative to who is paying. No surprise, the “experts” know this too, and regularly seek to hide or obscure who is paying. Now, even the pinnacle of prestige in the medical world, The New England Journal of Medicine, has had to strengthen its guidelines that seek to separate research performed at arms length from the pharmaceutical/medical industrial complex from that more directly controlled.

A Step Towards a Solution

What can we do to provide a substantial increase in the transparency of our information sources while keeping things simple?

We should begin to demand that every expert, commentator, think tank institute, or university laboratory reveal the sources of 80% of the funds supporting its research/organizational activities. In the vast majority of case the list of sources will not exceed three or four. This protocol will provide a revealing base of background information without substantial burdens.

A Caveat

Although the protocol proposed here will increase the transparency of our sources of information, it will not relieve us of the work of making sense out of the data and theories presented in any given situation. Just because a given piece of research is funded by “bad people” does not mean that the data is not meaningful and the analysis correct.